Hamas is now recruiting in Lebanon. What will that mean for Hezbollah?

Beirut, Lebanon – When Hamas put out a call for recruitment in Lebanon on December 4, several mainstream Lebanese political parties and officials denounced the move, accusing the Palestinian group of violating their country’s national sovereignty, while recalling memories of the bloody civil war.

But the recruitment for a parallel armed force might end up serving the interests of Hezbollah, according to analysts, due to the Lebanese group’s military hegemony, particularly in southern Lebanon. Hamas is believed to be recruiting in Lebanon through announcements in the country’s Palestinian refugee camps and the mosques there.

“Hezbollah is trying to enlist the support of Sunni groups [like Hamas in Lebanon] in its fight against Israel from southern Lebanon,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera. But any other actors won’t be able to act independently because “Hezbollah fully controls the border situation.”

After Hamas’s attacks in southern Israel on October 7, which killed 1,200 civilians and military personnel, according to Israeli officials, Israel has continuously bombarded Gaza, with only a brief pause in fighting at the end of November. More than 18,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry there.

In neighbouring Lebanon, more than 100 people have died since Hezbollah first targeted Israel with missiles on October 8. Most of the dead are Hezbollah fighters who have engaged Israel’s military in what they say are efforts to prevent their opponent’s full force from coming down on Hamas.

The ‘Axis of Resistance’ in Lebanon

Relations between Hamas and Hezbollah have resumed in recent years after a schism over the civil war in Syria. Members of Hamas’s leadership left their previous base in Damascus in 2012 after condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on protests.

From 2017 onwards, some Hamas members returned to Lebanon, including Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the Hamas Political Bureau; Khalil al-Hayya, the leader of Hamas’s Arab and Islamic relations; and Zaher Jabarin, in charge of issues concerning Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Last year, the Hamas leadership revealed the existence of “a joint security room” for the so-called “Axis of Resistance” – an Iranian-affiliated military coalition that includes Hamas and Hezbollah among other groups. Some analysts believe it could be based in Lebanon. And in April 2023, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh visited Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut.

Analysts believe it is unlikely that Hamas would call for an expansion in Lebanon without having first consulted Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has maintained dominance in south Lebanon for decades. But Israeli officials have recently said they can no longer accept the presence of the group, or their elite al-Radwan unit, on Israel’s northern border. That’s why Hamas’s growing presence in Lebanon could be a tactical decision that also serves Hezbollah, according to some analysts.

“Hezbollah is searching for local allies in the post-war period because its military component will come into question as Israel wants it out of the south Litani,” Khashan said. After the 2006 July war between Hezbollah and Israel, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1701, calling for a demilitarised zone from the Litani River, Lebanon’s longest river that runs from the southern seaside city of Tyre into the Bekaa Valley, to what is known as the “Blue Line”, which separates Lebanon from Israel.

But the expansion of Hamas in Lebanon would not only be beneficial to Hezbollah. As Hamas is under siege in Gaza, its popularity in the West Bank has grown, according to a recent opinion poll. In Lebanon, the group could be looking to play on their increased popularity and muscle out their political rivals Fatah.

By growing their cadre in Lebanon, “Hamas can say we strengthened our political position everywhere we exist”, Drew Mikhael, an expert on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera. “No political actor or party doesn’t want more power.”

A return to ‘Fatahland’

Still, the announcement caused a stir among some communities in Lebanon.

“We consider any armed action originating from Lebanese territory as an attack on national sovereignty,” Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, a predominantly Christian party, said, rejecting the creation of what he called a “Hamas-land”.

It was a reference to “Fatahland”, a throwback to a time when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasser Arafat operated as a state within a state in southern Lebanon from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The PLO used southern Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel and became an active member in Lebanon’s civil war in 1975.

Other condemnations also arrived from figures like Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati; the chief of the right-wing nationalist Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea; a former police chief and current MP, Ashraf Rifi; and Samy Gemayel, who leads the Kataeb, a traditional Christian party that has attempted to rebrand itself as a centre-right nationalist party in recent years, among others.

While the warning was sounded by politicians across the sectarian spectrum, the reference to a return to “Fatahland” was evoked by multiple Christian leaders in particular. Resentment against Palestinians for the role of the PLO and other factions in the civil war is still common in Lebanon, particularly among parts of the Christian community, even if many empathise with the current suffering in Gaza.

‘Complete Christian marginalisation’

With the world’s eyes on Gaza, Lebanon’s Christian leaders may be using the announcement to play inter-sectarian politics and get a leg up on opponents in Lebanon, say analysts.

“Bassil’s entire career has been an effort to ramp up rhetoric on an ethnonational discourse,” Mikhael said. “Most of the time he doesn’t speak to a national audience. It’s an internal fight with Geagea.”

Bassil and Geagea lead the two biggest Christian parties in Lebanon. But despite their stature, both are divisive figures, deeply unpopular outside their immediate support base.

The internal jockeying is indicative of a Christian retreat from national politics in Lebanon, according to Michael Young of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

“There is a complete Christian marginalisation on most issues today,” Young told Al Jazeera. “When it comes to issues of national discussion, they are seemingly becoming more and more parochial. Christians don’t really pay attention to Palestinian politics and are almost mentally divorced from the Lebanese state.”

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